Philip K. Dick had a flair for spinning science fiction scenarios that were well within the orbit of paranoia. In his novels and short stories, he addressed the tricks of memory and the quirks of reality.
Once dismissed as a mere purveyor of pulp fiction, Dick ― who died in 1982 ― is now recognized as a major American writer. But arguably, he’s still best known for inspiring some of the most imaginative films to come out of Hollywood in recent decades, including the cult classic, “Blade Runner” (originally released shortly after his death) and the 2002 summer blockbuster, “Minority Report.”
The latest addition to Dick’s filmography is “The Adjustment Bureau,” opening Friday. In the film, the budding relationship between a politician (Matt Damon) and a dancer (Emily Blunt) attracts the attention of mysterious, hat-wearing men who are determined to keep them apart.
Unusual for a mainstream Hollywood release, “The Adjustment Bureau” defies easy categorization. It might be described as a philosophical science fiction romantic comedy ― with suspense.
The film is the directorial debut of George Nolfi, who loosely adapted the script from Dick’s short story, “Adjustment Team.”
“The short story is really about: What is real, and what isn’t real?” said Nolfi, whose other screenwriting credits include “Ocean’s Twelve” (2004) and “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007).
“What I was more interested in is, how does a person react if all the rules of the game ― the rules of the universe, basically ― are turned on their head? And placed in opposition to something that he knows in his heart?”
If “The Adjustment Bureau” takes detours from its source material, it also covers territory that aficionados of Dick’s fiction should find engaging. Jonathan Lethem, a novelist and MacArthur “genius” grant recipient whose books include “The Fortress of Solitude” and “Motherless Brooklyn,” cites Dick as an influence.
Matt Damon and Emily Blunt star in “The Adjustment Bureau.” (Andrew Schwartz/Universal Pictures/MCT)
“He took the impulse to do surrealist, absurd and even philosophical things in a novel,” Lethem said, “and made it very American, and very scrappy and approachable. And funny, too.”
Lethem edited the Library of America volumes that signaled Dick’s acceptance into the literary establishment.
Dick might be amused at the esteem in which he is currently held. Although his novels “The Man in the High Castle” (which envisions a world in which Germany, Italy and Japan won World War II) and “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said” (about a man who’s stripped of his celebrity in a parallel universe) are considered masterpieces, he spent most of his writing career in near-poverty.
“Blade Runner” proved that Dick’s fiction could be shaped into the stuff of cinema, but it was “Total Recall” (1990) that confirmed its potential as action fodder. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the film grossed more than $260 million worldwide and earned mostly good reviews. “Minority Report,” which brought together star Tom Cruise and director Steven Spielberg, further established Dick as a brand name.
Not all of the films based on his fiction have been memorable. Critics and audiences agreed that the Ben Affleck thriller “Paycheck” (2003) lacked bounce and the Nicolas Cage action flick “Next” (2007) didn’t require a sequel. But the adaptations keep coming. Ridley Scott, director of “Blade Runner,” is producing a TV miniseries based on “The Man in the High Castle.” Director Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) plans to bring his offbeat sensibility to “Ubik.” And Colin Farrell is set to star in a remake of “Total Recall.”
Nolfi attributes Dick’s enduring popularity with filmmakers to the science fiction legend’s “really high-quality ideas. Ideas that are very intriguing and visual.”
Perhaps another reason Dick’s work resonates so deeply is because ― for all its fantastical qualities ― it’s rooted in real-world concerns.
“We live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups,” he observed in a 1978 essay.
“I do not distrust their motives,” Dick added. “I distrust their power. It is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind.
“I ought to know. I do the same thing.”
By Calvin Wilson
(St. Louis Post-Dispatch)